It is sometime after 5pm – between chomping down on a very meaty beef burger and swigging from a can of apple juice – that the call comes in. Up until then, I have been having the exact weekend I had in mind when I dragged myself away from work to catch the 727 to Aberdeen Dyce airport a few days earlier: go-karting and then a BBQ, with the prospect of Lakeside shopping with B. to come. The scene is one of self-indulgent relaxation; two grills fully stocked with burgers, chicken drumsticks and barbecue meat on the go, little children running about, wives and girlfriends munching on burgers and sharing intimate gossip moments, and men standing around the grill sipping from cans and surveying the scene – wife, 2.5 kids, picket fence and a few hundred quid to burn on a splurge in tow. It takes a while – probably the better part of ten minutes – before the gravity of the news begins to sink in. When I return to the three-way conversation I was having before the call, B senses there is something wrong. In response to her quizzical look, I motion for her to break out of the conversation and explain what has happened. All told, twenty minutes after hearing the news – give or take – my mood has morphed from indulged, self-congratulation to inner turmoil as I attempt to digest the news in the relative quiet of B’s.
It is nearly 10pm before my brain wakes up. I fire an email off to the team leader at work to let him know I’ll be out for a couple of weeks, ask the TwitterVerse for pointers to quick tickets for Lagos and call M. for an update on the situation and how A.’s holding up. Twitter delivers – I end up grabbing tickets for a return flight on Arik, as well as get an email from the work asking to be kept in the loop as things evolve. By the time B. hauls me off to my hotel, it is nearly 12.30am – seven hours and some after the news broke. Things are still very fluid at this stage, what is becoming clear is that the next few weeks will be a long hard slog.
The hours between getting the news and reaching a semblance of acceptance pass like a blur, largely in silent contemplation whilst I run over the last weeks’ worth of communication with H. The last time we spoke, our conversation had been one of those ones where skirting seriousness was more important than the conversation itself, with barely a nod to the multiplied elephants in the room. It was only the second time we were talking after a big row – certain things we had come to regret had been said – hence the extreme carefulness. With the reality of loss beginning to sink in, the overwhelming feeling is one of lingering regret. With the benefit of hindsight, the time we had – limited unbeknownst to us – would have been better spent focusing on all the things we shared rather than our issues of significant dissent.
I finally get home – after navigating massive delays on the M25, a 90 minute delay on my flight out of Heathrow and having to buy my own toilet paper at MMA to – to pick up on meets and greets. They come in their numbers – an endless stream of people – some come crying, some with choice sound bites in tow, others sit in respectful, contemplative silence.
The numbers passing through are something I struggle with. I have always believed that loss is intensely personal and private, something which has guided my interactions with people in the past. As such whilst the meet and greets are great, my initial reaction to them is one of irritation, considering them a distraction of sorts. When we as the immediate family have a first quick chat to define the expectations for a program of activities, I am in favour of a quick, simple sequence, focused on us and a few good friends. Unfortunately I am in the minority, the consensus that we arrive at is for a program spread over three days with multiple requirements to provide food and refreshments for people who will attend. That seems counterintuitive to me – wasteful even – given the expense involved.
Over the course of the next few weeks my position would soften somewhat. The sort of life that H lived – with interactions across multiple spectra – meant that there were loads of people genuinely feeling a sense of loss. That helps me come to terms with the expanded program being proposed. Others’ grief is every bit as real, if less intense as mine.
Looking back, 2014 has been an interesting year in deaths so far. Of the trio of friends A. had in his St John Bosco’s College days, he alone remains alive. Of H.’s trio from undergrad, Aunt L alone remains. For those who had not succumbed to the ineluctable call of death, the passage of time is etched in their very bodies – faced deeply lined, sagging body parts and lumbered with aches and pains of varying descriptions. Even the little kids, barely out of their diapers I took care of many years ago, have all morphed into near teens and adults. Placed in the context of my upcoming birthday a few days after I have planned to return, the underlying narrative is one of transience and the inescapable fragility of life.
Being part of planning and executing H.’s final journey allowed me to take a long look back. What was incontrovertible was that H. left a significant legacy. The outpouring of grief, the support in cash and kind that rolled in, and the emotional tributes that were given were proof incontrovertible of that. Her story is one of succeeding against the odds by dint of perseverance and trail blazing – multiple scholarships and prizes academically, noted contributions to world class work over a 34 year career, and a life that was lived in consonance with her Christian worldview. Somewhere in between she met A., who credits the heights that he reached in his own career to the stability she brought to the home front as she kept things running smoothly in the background.
With loss, I find that I swing between three responses. An initial stage of denial where I struggle with accepting the reality of loss and absence, and then when that is no longer a plausible position, I attempt to find a new normal. In tandem with that there is a desire to make sense of our loss, given our, and H’s worldview. That life as we know it has changed forever is not in doubt. A. seemed a lot more gaunt than I recall when I first saw him. His eyes were rheumy, and bloodshot – not a lot of sleep and loads of private tears to blame for that. Life as he has known it for more than 40 years has involved H. in some capacity, I worry as to what the new normal for him might be.
With death, ‘normal’ changes irretrievably. The equilibrium, if one is ever reached, is a new, radically different, dynamic one one with new behaviours, modified expectations and present realities. Someone was, and then is not, the facts are what they are and no equilibrium can change that. For me, finding a new equilibrium revolved around four things – immersing myself in planning for the funeral, spending quality time with the sisters and their children, catching up with B, and reading. I managed to wrap up three books – Paul Carter’s Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.
One morning as we took a breather from the hectic, gruelling pace of planning, my Aunt S stepped into the room which had evolved into a sanctum of sorts for me, my one oasis of quiet amidst the turmoil. There she proceeded to initiate a lengthy conversation around marriage, or more specifically my delay in closing it out. That was a scene that would recur throughout the weekend. Mrs E. put it a little more subtly – hinting that our new normal needed to include a celebration to get us all excited again. In their own way, these were attempts at coping – by attempting to focus their energy and attention on a potential future event, rather than the particularly difficult one at hand.
In tandem with loss in this case was a sense of lostness. My earliest memories of growing up are inextricably linked to H; her bowls of soup and Sunday afternoon cooking marathons the most lucid reminders of how she kept two homes ticking along steadily in two different cities. Given the events of the past few years, and my ever increasing isolation from Nigeria, H. was an essential link to Nigeria. With her gone, there is a sense of even more Lostness. That sense was never more obvious than in my interactions with the extended family, my less than stellar language abilities making difficult conversations even more awkward. There was a sense of nakedness – being thrust out of a protective cocoon into bright, harsh light. What tenuous links that remain were even more weakened by the dysfunction on display. The frustrating, harsh reality of working in the medical profession in Nigeria (by some weird coincidence some two thirds of the family gets their bread and butter from the field) was a subject of numerous conversations. Unlike me, most of the others seemed quite keen to tough it out. The final nail in the coffin of patriotism was delivered on the morning of the funeral. For a chance to take control of the 2,000 naira ‘bathing fee’, the head of the team of morticians at the morgue somehow contrived to lock up the items we had delivered for preparing the body for burial, preventing the nightshift team from completing the task. That two thirds of the family worked in the self same teaching hospital, and we had made multiple trips to ensure there were no hitches on the day counted for little. One wonders how those without family members working there fare.
The question of loss and what sense there could be made of it was one we wrestled with all through. The biblical narrative suggests that life on earth is infinitesimal compared to life beyond it. Within that context, death is merely a passage to another life, a portal into another space-time continuum. That much was repeated in varying forms over the course of my three weeks by various people. The reality of loss though is a lot more personal, time does blunt the keenness of pain – and helps promote a return to a new normal – but I suppose until time does her work, no amount of philosophising will suffice.
I found the three weeks of conversations, mourning, planning and burying a huge strain. By the time it had all been wrapped up, all I wanted to do was to get away from everything, and begin to breathe again, hence the plan to leave straight after event number three – a thanksgiving service in church. When time to leave finally came, I found it difficult to up sticks and just leave. Three weeks were the most I had spent bonding with my family in more than ten years – since before my UX5 days. Nearly an hour behind plan, I was eventually in a cab speeding towards Benin and the airport. Beyond that was Lagos, sleep overnight and then a return to Aberdeen via London.
This is only three weeks in – by no means have we reached our new normal yet. A large part of what that will become is still up in the air – A still has work in the city, I plan to make Aberdeen the hub around which I ‘do life in a great church and a great city’, there is a lot of paper work to sort out before some semblance of real normalcy can be restored. What is not debatable is that life is incredibly fragile – birth and death its epigraph and hypograph. If visions of cold lifeless forms strewn over tables in a morgue – which remain seared in my memory – are anything to go by, TS Elliot put it most succinctly:
This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang, but with a whimper.